When Good Newsletters Go Bad: How to Avoid the Rut and Capture Hearts

The wizard in Wizard of Oz and the guy behind the curtain pretending to be him have different personalities. Which one would you rather listen to? The wizard comes across as bigger than life and unreachable. The little guy hiding behind the giant green face is one of us, a person.

Companies that publish newsletters without a name or a voice feel cold and untouchable like the wizard. Give a voice to one person and you put a face on the company. Readers respond to a person better than an invisible entity. Think of an email newsletter that provides a wealth of information and over time becomes a victim of its own success. You used to look forward to receiving the newsletter, but it has turned into a big commercial.

This has happened to award-winning newsletters. At the time of receiving the award, the newsletter provided powerful stuff, helping it achieve success and earn its large mailing list. Once it reeled in readers, the material changed and not for the better. When working on something for a long time, falling into a rut happens. But there is a difference between falling into a rut by turning the newsletter into a news release and providing readers with something of value. Read on as I alert you to the pitfalls of this rut and give you ideas for keeping your readers satisfied.

Prevent Mr. Big Head

One newsletter no longer provides articles and instead points to the publisher's blog, products for sale and webinars starring the publisher. Another still offers an article, but not as much or as valuable as in the past. The newsletter also announces the person's accomplishments, newly landed clients and includes short articles recommending a product -- articles that sound more like affiliate recommendations than reviews.

Another company keeps distributing news releases about its successes. Most issues leave the reader wondering, "So what? That has nothing to do with me or my needs." Once in a while, it sends an issue with the latest products added to its database, which is the purpose of the mailing list. But it doesn't provide updates on the industry anymore unless it's about the company.

An egotistical publisher takes advantage of the mailing list by sending out emails with specials, "check out this product," "come see me," "attend my webinar," and "attend so 'n so's webinar" (that has nothing to do with the newsletter topic). The message comes across as if the person is a celebrity. Throw his name around to friends and colleagues, and no one will have heard of him.

These newsletters from Mr. Big Head are in danger of losing readers. They miss the old down-to-earth style and person's original voice that came across like a friend or colleague providing advice or information. If the unsubscribe rate doesn't change much, it doesn't mean you're safe. It could simply mean readers don't want to bother unsubscribing, and instead, they send the unread newsletter to the trash bin whenever it comes in.

For example, in a recent conversation, a colleague and I admitted to each other that we don't unsubscribe to certain newsletters for political reasons. We know the publisher, and it would be noticeable if we dropped the newsletter. Instead, I've created a filter to send it to the trash bin.

Know that change happens

Change happens, and it's okay to do it, but change depends on the why and whether or not it has readers' best interests in mind. For instance, a popular newsletter drastically redesigned its layout, leaving many to write about their displeasure with the change. It doesn't mean never redesigning the look and feel of your newsletter, but rather tread carefully how you go about it. If you include readers in the process, you're a step ahead of many.

The publisher should've alerted readers of the redesign plans and explained the reasons for doing it. To make readers more accepting, the publisher could ask readers for feedback as to what they want and don't want to see. Some readers might be willing to review preliminary designs and provide feedback. After the change goes in effect, write an introduction talking about the change and invite input.

Don't be a victim of the success trap

Readers hesitate to write and tell the publisher to "stop focusing on yourself so much." It's easier to provide feedback on a newsletter's design or a new column than one related to a person. How many of you have written a note to a person criticizing the person as opposed to an object or thing?

One editor does a fabulous job of sharing her news and successes without adding a drop of ego. She writes like a friend reporting on what's happening in her life including the bad things. I use her as a model for avoiding the "me, me, me" trap.

What about the fact newsletters are supposed to bring value to the publisher and not just the reader? Many successful newsletters accomplish this without becoming a commercial or an ode to the company. Ways to accomplish this:

  • Ensure the advertising to content ratio is in favor of content.
  • Include a free offer.
  • Put links to the site where it is appropriate (byline, banner, published line, etc.).
  • Create "special" offers good for a limited time.
  • Add related products or services at the end of an article.
  • Limit the sending of offers or specials in a separate email.
Highlight special offer emails

Sending special offers between issues is A-okay. The approach and the frequency make the difference. Some companies increase them between issues, and soon readers give up looking for the real content. A successful publisher sends a special once after every issue or every other issue. She also identifies such emailings by using a different subject than her regular newsletter. An example:

Subject: eNewsletter Journal: January 2005

Subject: eNewsletter Journal Special for Readers

Not the most exciting or creative subject line, but I'm sure you can think of better. The point is to use something that doesn't have the date or issue information. Ensure the newsletter / publisher is recognizable, while giving the offer emails a different identity from the newsletter emails through the subject heading.

Keep your voice

Your personal voice drives your newsletter's success. When reading a favorite newsletter, what voice do you picture? A corporation? An employee? The company whose newsletters have turned into news releases comes across as an organization rather than a person, like the Wizard of Oz hiding behind a big scary figure. When we meet the guy behind the curtain, it's surprisingly a different personality and more likeable than the great Oz. See if you can't bring that personal touch to your newsletters.

Then, the next time you read various newsletters, see which ones draw you in and which ones repel. Answer the question of why they make you feel this way and use that to help you with your newsletter. When you show credibility and readers trust you, they will buy as long as you provide them with value and a unique voice.

Meryl K. Evans is the Content Maven behind meryl's notes, eNewsletter Journal, and The Remediator Security Digest. She is also a PC Today columnist and a tour guide at InformIT. She is geared to tackle your editing, writing, content, and process needs. The native Texan resides in Plano, Texas, a heartbeat north of Dallas, and doesn't wear a 10-gallon hat or cowboy boots.

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